LGBT elders find community at the John C. Anderson Apartments

Elizabeth Williams

One is a renowned gay male activist who protested in front of Independence Hall in 1965, another is a trans woman actress who starred as part of filmmaker John Waters’ ensemble cast, there’s a writer with a grant from the Smithsonian, and, fittingly, a former spy.

This diverse group of people are among the residents of the John C. Anderson Apartments (JCAA), the first housing complex in Philadelphia primarily for LGBTQ elders, and one of only a handful in the entire country. JCAA is the first senior citizen housing project built by and for the LGBT community in Pennsylvania. It was named for Anderson, a member of City Council, who died in 1983 of AIDS when he was 41 years old.

The 56 one-bedroom apartments provide access to a community that many seniors on fixed incomes are seeking. JCAA, said tenant John James, 78, “has all the advantages of being in the LGBT community. And because everyone is older and mostly LGBTQ, it’s not a random collection of people.”

“Aging in place” is a phrase frequently heard in advertisements for home healthcare for seniors. But for LGBTQ people, the desire to stay in one’s home can also be driven by fear, particularly the idea of returning to the closet in senior living facilities run and populated by non-LGBTQ people.

James has lived at JCAA since it opened in January 2014. He is acutely aware of what can befall LGBT seniors. On Feb. 4, he screened the film “Gen Silent” in the community room at JCAA. The 2010 documentary film, directed and produced by Stu Maddux, follows the lives of six LGBT seniors living in the Boston area who must choose if they will hide their sexuality in order to survive in the long-term health care system.

The film is, said James, an accurate representation of what awaits many LGBT elders.

James’ activism dates back to what he called “a sweaty July day in 1965” when he protested outside Independence Hall with Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny and others declaring that gay people deserved civil rights. Two decades later, he was breaking ground publishing AIDS treatment news and helping to save lives during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Now retired, James is working on research into aging. He is investigating the impact of retrotransposons — DNA elements — used in HIV treatment on the aging.

Mary Groce, 70, and Suz Atlas, 76, moved into JCAA in 2017 when Atlas had a health crisis and an apartment became available. They had been living in an adult community in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, but they needed to be closer to medical care for Atlas and to affordable living. Atlas said that there was a level of homophobia where they were that, while not overt, was a factor in their lives. “We did love the shopping in Cherry Hill,” Groce laughs.

Like many couples who have been together a quarter-century, Groce and Atlas finish each other’s sentences, laugh at each other’s quips and are unselfconsciously affectionate with one another Groce explained that they are one of only three couples at JCAA — everyone else is single. That glaring fact explains how much senior housing is needed — many LGBT elders don’t have the support their non-LGBT peers have.

Both women had led closeted lives married to men for years before coming out. Atlas has three children and two grandchildren; Groce has four children and four grandchildren. In the early days of their relationship, they raised a couple of teenagers together.

Groce is the 2019 Verville Fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. as well as a writer and illustrator. On Feb. 5, she was the keynote speaker at the FAA’s National Black Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees (NBCFAE) for its annual Black History Month celebration, talking about her great uncle, Emory Malick, the first licensed Black pilot in the U.S., about whom Groce has also authored a book. 

Groce called Anderson, “our Nirvana, our escape place.” A series of serious health issues — heart attacks, cancer and cancer again — made JCAA the perfect spot for aging in place.

Though Atlas is battling a rare cancer, her upbeat attitude sparkles, and she jokes about everything. Atlas is a former spy who “gave up my trenchcoat.” She answered an ad in the newspaper for a courier. “It wasn’t a courier,” she said. Atlas explained that her job took her to places she “would never otherwise have had entré into.” Her stories — 21 years worth — are the stuff of thrillers.

At JCAA, the couple is working toward building more community in the complex, putting together a monthly newsletter and connecting with other people in the building; they are also starting a writing program.

Elizabeth Williams is one of JCAA’s best-known tenants. A trans activist, actress and a champion quilter who has worked with the NAMES Project and the AIDS quilt, Williams wants ageism and aging to be a major talking point for activists of all communities.

A voluble and vibrant 72, Williams said one of the perils of aging is “you become invisible.” She said, “I am like the old broad who’s still rockin’ it,” but adds that it is easy to be erased past a certain age. “Nobody talks about ageism. Ageism is so rampant. When did I become irrelevant because of my age?”

She echoes Atlas, Groce and James about the problems of isolation among LGBT elders. “We have to be proactive about it. We need to engage. We need to be mindful of each other.” She said it is too easy to “close the door of your apartment and stop connecting, stop reaching out.”

It was friends being mindful of her that led her to JCAA after a harrowing breakup with her husband of 24 years. Williams was on the precipice of homelessness before she came to JCAA. But she still has fears that it could all change overnight again, as it did for her before. “It’s not rational,” she said. “But we all feel it. Look at the culture. I worry that I might be taken out of here to a camp — we’ve seen all this before.” She referenced the Trump administration’s anti-LGBT policies and the feelings of unease that they have engendered in so many Americans, LGBT and otherwise.

For all her fame, Williams is the kind of down-to-earth person who pats the sofa next to her and wants to hear your story first. Warm and open, she talked easily about her life — even the most painful aspects — like that harrowing breakup in which she lost everything or the battle with melanoma that nearly took her life.

She said she thrives on gratitude and that is what she tries to impart to others. “Don’t think about what you don’t have,” she said.

Williams said she thinks not about what she lost, but on what she has. “Many, many people have faced worse discrimination day-to-day than I have,” she said. “I’m not food insecure; I’m not homeless. I have this beautiful place and my work and friends. We have to appreciate what we have.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.